Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre has become embroiled in the controversy over the covert surveillance of journalists after revelations he called the city's former police chief just before warrants were obtained to track journalist Patrick Lagacé's cellphone activity.
The disclosure on Monday has put the mayor on the defensive while the storm over police monitoring of the media buffets Quebec for a second week.
The latest case marks the second time that Mr. Lagacé, a high-profile columnist for La Presse, was spied on by police through court-obtained warrants.
Mr. Lagacé was investigating a rumour in 2014 that Mr. Coderre had failed to pay a fine for an expired licence plate back when he was a federal MP in 2012. Mr. Lagacé contacted the mayor's office to verify the information. In the end, he decided not to publish a story after determining it was not true.
Shortly after his e-mail to the mayor's office, however, the mayor called then-police chief Marc Parent. A criminal investigation was launched to find out which officer had spoken to the journalist, and police obtained a warrant to track Mr. Lagacé's smartphone history.
Mr. Coderre admitted to speaking to the police chief, saying he was concerned about repeated leaks about himself in the media and questioning their source.
The mayor says he did not tell Mr. Parent to investigate Mr. Lagacé. He said on Monday he called "my director," referring to Mr. Parent, to find out more about the leaks and whether they were legal.
Mr. Lagacé said that referring to the police chief as "my director" is revealing of the mayor's view of the relationship between city hall and the police force.
"It's not his chief of police," Mr. Lagacé said in an interview. "It's my chief of police, it's our chief of police as Montrealers. That's the problem. To me, it's another example that, in this province, the police is politicized."
Mr. Coderre said he placed the call to the chief as an "ordinary citizen" – a claim that brought derision from the opposition at city hall, which is accusing the mayor of political meddling of the Montreal police department. Mr. Coderre has been a staunch defender of the current police chief, Philippe Pichet, during the surveillance controversy.
"To say he's acting like an ordinary citizen is worse than naivety, worse than ignorance, it's a deep lack of judgment about his role as mayor," said Luc Ferrandez, interim leader of Projet Montréal.
The news about Mr. Coderre adds another layer of controversy to a story that has merged concerns about political interference, the reach of police power and the responsibilities of the courts to place limits on them. Provincial and Montreal police have admitted to date that they have obtained court warrants to keep tabs on seven journalists – in Mr. Lagacé's case, twice. Earlier this year, police obtained 24 warrants to monitor his calls for several months; that was part of another criminal investigation involving one of their own officers.
Retired Quebec Superior Court justice John Gomery, who led the commission of inquiry into the federal sponsorship scandal in the mid-2000s, described the situation as a "scandal" that calls into question the checks placed on police powers. The police's warrant applications were submitted to justices of the peace.
"I question their ability to do the job that they have been asked to do," Mr. Gomery said about JPs. "They don't have the kind of neutrality that applies to full-scale judges. I'd like to know, do they refuse these applications? I'm afraid I suspect that they almost always grant them."
The province has announced a commission of inquiry into the police surveillance of journalists. The Sûreté du Québec has admitted it monitored six journalists' cellphone records, some for as long as five years. The warrants were obtained in 2013 and applied retroactively to 2008, covering a period when the journalists were uncovering corruption in the construction industry in Quebec. Those revelations led to the Charbonneau Commission.